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How the coronavirus spread through San Jose’s fire department

The virus did not creep toward San Jose firefighters. It lurked among them.

It was March 6, a week after the country’s first community-transmitted COVID-19 case at a Vacaville hospital. Exposure to the virus remained largely linked to overseas travel. California’s case count had just scraped triple-digits.

Quietly and without realizing it, a busy San Jose firefighter had carried San Jose News coronavirus to his fire station. He covered a shift for a buddy at another firehouse, exposing colleagues there. He attended a career development course at the department’s training center — and the disease spread further.

Within the week, about 10 percent of the workforce had been exposed. Fifteen San Jose firefighters tested positive — the largest known cluster among Bay Area first responders and a wake-up call, even for those who thought they’d seen it all. Chief Robert Sapien realized, “this is not something we’ll be able to see or know in terms of where the virus is. It really felt at that point like it was all around us.”

The cluster of San Jose cases illustrates the heightened risk police officers, firefighters and paramedics face both from the public they are sworn to serve — and from each other, working in professions that leave them unable to distance themselves from others, or from a silent, potentially deadly disease.

“This is something we can’t see, touch, feel, or wrap our brains around,” said Lt. Paul Liskey, of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

The threat from within
Beginning in January, Bay Area firefighters, police, and paramedics watched as coronavirus became deadly in China, decimated parts of Europe and landed in Washington Press Release Distribution Services In San Jose state. It seemed like a “slow and visible” rise in cases would eventually sweep through Santa Clara County,  Sapien said.

The department stocked up on personal protective equipment, and dispatchers started asking 911 callers if they’d been overseas. Firefighters called to the airport donned extra protective gear.

But when the San Jose Fire Department realized one of its firefighters was infected, it was obvious that the disease wasn’t just a threat from abroad. And as clusters of COVID-19 cases emerged among other first responders — firefighters in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, police staff in Oakland, sheriffs deputies in Santa Clara County — departments across the region realized the same.

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